From The Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, CA
March 31, 1996
Never before in the WWF had such a display of hypocrisy been presented.
Beginning in 1994, with Bret Hart’s ascension to his second reign as WWF Champion, Vince McMahon’s empire draped itself in the colors of an ad campaign called “The New Generation”. McMahon chose to move forward with a newer set of soldiers, trying to bury the older ghosts of his company’s past.
But while McMahon painted over the murals of Hogan and Randy Savage and Ric Flair with the likes of Razor Ramon, Diesel, Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker, and, of course, Bret Hart himself, those banished ghosts found a new haunt in Atlanta called WCW.
And haunt Vince they would.
In 1995, WCW would premiere a trendy little show called Nitro to go head to head with McMahon’s flagship Monday Night Raw. The two shows traded victories in the ratings war, but McMahon’s product was, by comparison, stale and outmoded in relative to a show that was live every week and putting on marquee matches, as well as showcasing fresh international talent.
The ghosts of Hogan and Savage and Flair tormented McMahon by taking a good chunk of his audience. Lex Luger, who had been a McMahon trustee for nearly three years, left to rejoin WCW on Nitro’s maiden episode, having left Vince behind without a formal goodbye.
The New Generation was a failing concept. In a desperate, hypocritical move, McMahon littered his show with old names: Jake Roberts, a returning Ultimate Warrior, Roddy Piper, Ted Dibiase (as a manager) and Mr. Perfect (as an announcer) to name a few.
But it would be two relatively young, time-tested stars that would carry the New Generation banner proudly, and salvage WrestleMania XII.
Much like one year earlier, Shawn Michaels found himself the winner of the 1996 Royal Rumble match, having dealt Diesel some Sweet Chin Music to knock him over the top in the finale. Michaels was routinely stealing the show at nearly every event he participated in, and fan sentiment led to a well-timed face turn in the spring of 1995. Soon, Michaels was winning the Intercontinental Title and defending it against Razor Ramon in a classic ladder match sequel at that year’s Summerslam.
On the same show, Diesel had his hands full defending his WWF Championship against King Mabel, injuring his shoulder during the ten minute slothing.
It seemed inevitable that Michaels would soon find his way back into the main event picture.
However, the championship took a detour, when Diesel’s year-long reign ended at the 1995 Survivor Series, as Bret Hart bested Diesel in a match that featured a memorable table bump. Hart began his third reign as champion, retaining over the likes of Davey Boy Smith, The Undertaker (in a DQ loss), and Diesel (in a steel cage match) to establish himself for the main event of WrestleMania XII.
Rowdy Roddy Piper (playing interim President while Gorilla Monsoon was selling injuries at the hands of Vader) decided to make the Hart vs. Michaels showdown for WrestleMania XII as memorable as possible. In what would be a first in televised WWF history, the fans would be treated to an “Iron Man” match, where the individual who scores the most falls over the course of one hour would be declared the winner.
Rather than feature a storyline full of twists and turns, Hart and Michaels were both portrayed as courageous and diligent athletes. Videos aired, featuring both men engaging in rigorous training exercises in order to get their bodies ready for the fight of their lives.
While Hart and Michaels had their road to WrestleMania etched in mutual respect, not every match would have that same backdrop. Supplementing the Iron Man match would be a formidable encounter between two giants. The Undertaker would take on Diesel in a contest several months in the making.
Undertaker was named #1 contender to the WWF Title in December 1995, which made Diesel feel slighted. As a means of protest, as Undertaker had Bret Hart pinned at the 1996 Royal Rumble, Diesel interfered to prevent “The Phenom” from winning the title. One month later, Diesel would face Hart in a steel cage match at In Your House for the title. In a famous moment, as Diesel went to exit the cage, Undertaker billowed up through the canvas, grabbed Diesel, and pulled him beneath the ring into a cauldron of smoke, preventing him from winning as well. The match was set to settle the grudge once and for all.
Two legends would return to in-ring competition as well; Rowdy Roddy Piper would face Goldust in a “Hollywood Backlot Brawl”, and The Ultimate Warrior returned after a three and a half year absence to face upstart Hunter Hearst Helmsley.
Vince McMahon and Jerry Lawler would call the action for the third year in a row. In a rather curious move, there would be no celebrity involvement at this show, but the event DID feature the debut of WCW’s former Johnny B Badd, now known as “Wildman” Marc Mero.
Owen Hart, The British Bulldog, and Vader def. Ahmed Johnson, Yokozuna, and Jake Roberts in 12:51
(Decent opener, even if the action was a bit disjointed. Ahmed and Vader would become obvious components for the future of the “New Generation”, while Owen and Bulldog were typically solid. About what you’d want from an opening match)
Stone Cold Steve Austin def. Savio Vega in 10:00
(Underrated match, due to a dead crowd, as well as distractions from another match that was taking place at the same time. Explanation forthcoming. Austin wasn’t quite the “Texas Rattlesnake” yet, but he was getting there. Just wait a few months)
The Ultimate Warrior def. Hunter Hearst Helmsley in 1:36
(You know what’s great about this match? Not only did Warrior no-sell the Pedigree, but since he’s likely never going to return to WWE, Hunter can never get his “job” back over him. And you wonder why Hunter’s been so quick to bash Warrior publically: he’s bitter. I love it)
The Undertaker def. Diesel in 16:46
(That’s five. This is also Taker’s first “good” match at WrestleMania, as he and Diesel gamely exchanged big moves back and forth with few dull moments. Within two months, Kevin Nash would be “for lifing it” in Atlanta with minimal effort given for the rest of his career)
Hollywood Backlot Brawl: Rowdy Roddy Piper def. Goldust in an indeterminate amount of time
(It was what it was: a bizarre brawl featuring some cringe-worthy shots, a silly “chase” that used stock footage of OJ Simpson’s bronco chase, and ended with homosexual one-upsmanship that included kissing, and Goldust being stripped down to lingerie. You know, just your typical match)
WWF World Championship/Iron Man Match: Shawn Michaels def. Bret Hart 1-0 in 61:52 to win the title
(A somewhat polarizing match; some fans felt that it was too dull to exchange holds over the span of one hour, while others appreciated the athleticism and endurance on display. As for me, I watched my favorite wrestler of my childhood win his first World Title and didn’t care what anybody else thought. That’s why I don’t mock twelve year old John Cena fans: their Cena was my Michaels)
ITS PLACE IN HISTORY
If Diesel was Vince’s new Hulk Hogan, then Michaels was Vince’s new Randy Savage: the change of pace champion to provide a different main event perspective after one babyface lost the title. With Michaels as the man in charge, fans could expect the main events to be more athletic, dramatic, and crisp, which couldn’t be said about Diesel’s encounters.
Bret Hart was just as good a main eventer as Michaels, but Hart already had three reigns, and was eight years older than the “Heartbreak Kid”. It was time for something new.
This main event was contrasted with an undercard that featured a heap of washed up names (Piper, Warrior, Roberts, etc), as well as building blocks of tomorrow (Austin, HHH, Vader), but while the past and the future reigned underneath, it was the present that took center stage.
WrestleMania XII was the Shawn Michaels Show, and rightfully so.